At a conference last term for 1,000 people, mainly National Primary Strategy consultant headteachers helping to roll out new ideas and methods, the term "moral purpose" was sprinkled by government policy-makers through the rhetoric of the day. Their use of the term, in connection with "raising standards", was disquieting.
Is the moral purpose of education to get everyone to level 4 or above in numeracy and literacy? It could be argued that this is a legitimate purpose of a narrowly-defined schooling system, but is it really the only legitimate purpose of education?
Morality is concerned with principles which help us discern what is right or wrong. In practical terms, it is to do with the development of ethical behaviour. Surely the moral purpose of education is to enable pupils to understand themselves and the world, and to act in a civilised way? And if this is so, how, in such a fragmented and complex society, can we rise to the challenge?
Teachers say the curriculum has become unbalanced. Gains in the basics have come at the price of the understanding of language, concepts, knowledge and skills from a broader curriculum. Teachers also report that the attitudes and behaviour of pupils are becoming more challenging.
However, there is some good news: the Government's vision for primary education, contained in the Excellence and Enjoyment document which heralded the National Primary Strategy, exhorts us to broaden the curriculum and include programmes to reinforce positive behaviour. The strategy is piloting some excellent work on how pupils' behaviour can be improved through the development of emotional literacy. The strategy is producing materials to help with this, and teachers will no doubt welcome them.
But first, some fundamental, whole-school questions need to be asked. To ensure a moral purpose for the curriculum, schools could usefully consider these points:
* For pupils to develop emotionally, socially and spiritually, the staff need to have considered their own understanding of emotional literacy.
* The school curriculum needs to be supported by positive values, expressed in a values statement that is integral to the school's vision statement.
Values education occurs when a class, or ideally a whole school, works systematically on a set of universal positive concepts, such as respect, care and co-operation. These concepts are woven into the curriculum so that they can be thought about and practised. The relevance of values education lies in its potential to support the development of both a school and personal ethic.
* Staff need to consider how they can demonstrate the types of behaviour that they expect in the pupils. For children to respect themselves and others, they need to have a positive experience of adults. Images on television and glossy magazines can leave us feeling inadequate. Being a real- life role model means showing by your own behaviour what you expect of the children. This is without doubt the most effective way of of building a positive climate and good relationships, and of laying the foundation of an emotionally literate school.
* The process of learning and teaching in the classroom is a dialogue between teacher and pupil. The behaviour of the pupil and teacher is determined by the subtle interaction of their thoughts, feelings and values. Their personal qualities influence their relationships. All this, combined with the teacher's enthusiasm and professional skills, knowledge and understanding, ensures that the pupil is well educated. The care, nurturing and valuing of both pupil and teacher is vital for the well-being and success of the school.
* The effective care of staff is a fundamental principle of values education and of the emotionally literate school. The school cannot promote values if the staff don't value themselves and each other. Considering how the school and class meet the needs of staff and pupils is crucial, and will draw out issues concerning the valuing of all pupils, showing pupils respect, and being authentic as a person. Children and adults soon spot inconsistencies between what you say and what you do.
These principles are being introduced in a growing number of schools and education authorities. Staff and children can transform their thinking by focusing on positive concepts. The benefits include a stronger, more supportive school community, and for the children greater emotional security, and the ability to sort out their own confusions by reference to notions of respect or honesty. Social behaviour improves, as does confidence that they will succeed in academic work. Values education ensures excellence, enjoyment, and a clear moral purpose.
Neil Hawkes is a senior adviser for Oxfordshire. How to inspire and develop values in your classroom (LDA, Cambridge), is his most recent publication.
Frances Farrer is the author of A Quiet Revolution (Rider) which describes how values education was introduced into an Oxfordshire school. Over the next three weeks they will show how schools are implementing values education.
Write to Primary@tes.co.uk